Chung Young-chul is among nearly 2,000 people who were once held in a small village in Seosan, South Korea, and forced to work without pay for years and are now largely forgotten.
“Some died after they were beaten and got sick. Others died of malnutrition or in accidents,” 74-year-old Chung said. “We were starving slaves.”
They were victims of social engineering orchestrated in the 1960s by then-South Korean president Park Chung-hee, the father of ousted president Park Geun-hye.
His 18-year rule was marked by both a dramatic economic rise and enormous human rights abuses.
He cleared city streets of so-called “vagrants” and put them to work on land and road projects as free labor to help rebuild after the Korean War.
The victims say they have never received proper investigation or compensation.
In Chung’s village, about 130km south of Seoul, about 1,770 people were made to work without pay in land reclamation projects.
They lived in army-style barracks. Some were ordered to marry female inmates, mostly former prostitutes sent from government-run shelters, in two rounds of mass weddings.
Former workers have said local officials told them repeatedly that they would be given some of the land they reclaimed, but that never happened.
Only about a dozen of the workers, mostly in their 70s, still live in the village. Those remaining pay rent to authorities to farm rice on the land they reclaimed.
After repeated legal defeats, some have accepted a recent government proposal to buy the land at market price in installments over 20 years, although they know they will probably die before they complete the payments.
They have always been poor, and falling rice prices have made them poorer.
Chung said he and others are pushing to file joint petitions with as many government offices as possible to appeal for help again.
Media reports during Park Chung-hee’s rule largely portrayed such people as making a fresh start with government help.
The true nature of their story has been shielded from the public: Official records are limited and many workers will not talk about what they believe was a dark past.
“Governments in South Korea have been very indifferent to them,” said Kim Aram at the Institute for Korean Historical Studies. “Now, it’s important to let the people know about the truth of this story because it’s completely unknown to them.”
Chung was left alone at an early age. A North Korean bomb killed his mother in the Korean War, and he was separated from the rest of his family when he fell off the roof of a train carrying refugees.
He worked as a shoeshine boy with other orphans in the southeastern port city of Busan, then became a member of the “Apache” gang, collecting protection money from bars and teahouses.
Chung’s life changed after Park Chung-hee seized power in a 1961 coup and attempted to “purify” society by rounding up people deemed vagrants and putting them to work.
In 1962, marines carrying rifles smashed down his shack door and took him to a rehabilitation center where hundreds were detained, Chung said.
They were told they were now members of the Republic of Korea Juvenile Pioneering Group.
His supervisors in Seosan stood guard every 30m to 50m and watched inmates even when they went to the bathroom.
Each day cultivated reclaimed land and built waterways and a reservoir. They caught and ate frogs, snakes and rats.
At night, they were often ordered to recite Park Chung-hee’s “revolution promises.” Those who stammered were beaten.
Some inmates died, through illness, beatings or accidents, but there is no official data on fatalities.
Local officials said they have no information on the operations, but a handful of experts like Kim Aram and local villager Kim Tae-young, who works with the remaining workers on land disputes, said the suffering was intense.
By the time the group was dissolved, control had loosened and many inmates had already left.
Former inmates said they had cultivated about 357 hectares, but that it was too salty and uneven.
Seosan officials “tentatively” distributed the land to the approximately 300 remaining workers and other poor people in the village between 1968 and 1971, Seosan farmers and villagers said.
Some simply sold their parcels, but others cultivated the land.
By the time they began harvesting rice, the government imposed rent for using state-owned property, Chung and other villagers said.
They staged a legal fight, but a local district court ruled against them in 2000 in a verdict upheld by higher-level courts.
The state-run Anti-Corruption & Civil Rights Commission in 2011 recommended that the government lower the prices of the land to reflect their previous labor, but a ministry in charge of government-owned land used market rates.
“It’s really shameful ... but I’m paying the installments with the help of my children,” said Sung, who lowered his head and wept. “I’ve been enduring it until now because I wanted my hard work to pay off, but things have become terrible.”
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